Asylum hotelsBlog

This blog series features the voices of those who are housed in hotels in the North West while waiting for their asylum claim to be processed. Previous blogs explored the emergence and context of the hotels policy, and food and living conditions in hotels. In this blog, we hear about the lack of privacy, arbitrary and opaque rules, and the difficulties of raising a complaint. The next blog will dwell on the sense of being stuck in limbo, while the final blog, drawing on these interviews, will outline our demands for dignified asylum accommodation – in communities, not camps.

All names are changed to protect anonymity. I am also not disclosing the location of hotels for the same reason.

Written by Will Wheeler, Researcher at GMIAU

JOB AD – £12.00 – 14.73 per hour


Berkeley Scott are currently working on an exclusive government contract to recruit “Hotel Housing Officers” in *****. NO PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE WITHIN THE HOUSING INDUSTRY IS REQUIRED

These roles are not for the faint hearted. The Housing Officers will be based at hotels which the government will be using exclusively for Asylum Seekers. The Housing Officers will be the point of contact between the hotel and the Asylum Seekers within the designated premises. You don’t need any previous experience of working with Asylum Seekers or within a Housing role. (Source)

You know I’m afraid all the time, I’m not telling the Serco. – Eima

I met Fereshteh, a single mum with a baby and a toddler, on a sunny afternoon outside the church where the organisation she was volunteering with was based. She was carrying her beautiful six month old baby, who was grinning in the sunshine and being cooed over by other volunteers. When we sat down for the interview, the first thing she told me about was his very difficult birth. She’d had to leave her 2 year old in the hotel while she was in hospital. She felt abandoned by her midwife, who had promised lots of support that did not materialise.

On returning from the hospital, she found that there was no water in the hotel. The midwife only came to visit after 5 days. Residents, Fereshteh said, were being provided with a 2-litre bottle for washing, and a small bottle for drinking.

Fereshteh: But it’s not enough, in that condition, it’s not enough at all! You know, a woman, need a shower, cleaning. But, when no one come and ask, you can’t do anything. You are depressed, you are tired.
Will: But the Serco staff knew you had a new-born baby, did they –
Fereshteh: No, they were in a lot of trouble, so no one come and ask, ‘Do you need anything?’
Will: OK. And the midwife didn’t come?
Fereshteh: No, she didn’t come, after 5 days, I had water, I cleaned myself and I cleaned my baby, and I didn’t need her help.
Will: How did you cope?
Fereshteh: When you have to do something, you do it. And, we learn to be brave and strong. You don’t have any other choice.


All those I talked to shared stories about the petty carelessness of hotel staff. Hotel residents are denied the autonomy of doing their own laundry – but, Maryam said, hotel staff would routinely forget certain items, like towels or pillowcases; Yousef mentioned that clothes take four days to be washed, posing a challenge to people who have arrived in the UK with nothing but the clothes on their back. If something is broken, like a hair-dryer, it has to be reported to staff, who may take weeks to get it fixed.

People I spoke to also complained about hotel staff not having first aid kits or providing painkillers if people needed them. Residents should have HC2 certificates to access free prescriptions (although in practice there are long delays in receiving these) – but for over-the-counter medication, they either need to make use of the £9.10 allowance, or try to book an appointment with a GP, which, as Fereshteh pointed out, is hard enough in itself, and even harder for those without much English.

Fereshteh – who had to leave before the end of our interview to take care of the kids – contacted me afterwards to tell me about a night when her son had a fever. She didn’t have Calpol, and the hotel staff also didn’t have any. In the end she tried to call an ambulance, which refused to come – leaving her no option but to give her son 1/5 of an adult painkiller to bring the fever down.

‘80% of the staff there, they are ok. The others, no.’

Eima, putting a positive spin on things, said that 80% of the staff were ‘ok’: “And this is acceptable. Wherever you go you will find like this.” She went further:

They are nice, they are kind, they are helpful. Everything they can do, they will do. But also they have limitations … Sometimes – we are keeping asking them when we will get address. ‘We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.’

I asked about the other 20%.

Eima: You know sometimes, for the Serco – if you complain about the food, they don’t like you to complain. If you ask them, ‘I don’t like this one, give me this one’ – it’s, ‘No, this is for children, you should take from this one.’ ‘OK, I will take nothing.’ Sometimes like that.
Will: And how does that make you feel?
Eima: You know sometimes I don’t want to eat the food, don’t want even to take it.

‘Where I complain? Complain where?’

Yousef told me that they had been allowed to use a toaster for their breakfast – but today the staff told him he’d come at the wrong time, and he wasn’t allowed to use it.

Yousef: Today, I talk to him about that machine for toast, they talk to me, ‘No, this time, this new time.’ I’m not have any choice, just I’m make silent.
Will: So you feel like you can’t complain?
Yousef: Yeah, yeah. Where I complain? Complain where? To police?
Will: To Serco, to Migrant Help?

Yousef: No, no, Serco not help.

Room checks

Fereshteh described some of the staff as ‘aggressive’.

For example, I take my son to the restaurant, to take our food. He was on the scooter. The lady told me, ‘You shouldn’t bring the scooter here.’ I told her, ‘Ok, next time I will not do it.’ She said, ‘No, now stop.’ I told my son, ‘Stop!’ and he ran away with the scooter. And that lady shouted at me, and we fight together. You know, they don’t understand our situation – they think rules, rules, and we have to obey in any situation, but it’s really difficult.

For example, we have to take our children for food with ourselves, we can’t leave them alone in the room. Imagine, we have to take two children with myself, three times a day. I’m on the first floor, fortunately, I don’t have to take the pram upstairs. But there are ladies on different floors, with pram, and sometimes the elevator, the lift is not working, so sometimes they have to pick it from the stairs.

When Maryam joined the conversation with an interpreter, she and Fereshteh talked about the ‘room checks’, which could happen every week or so. These are ostensibly to check for mould and so on – but in practice staff will search the room, including behind the curtains, looking for anyone staying without permission, or unauthorised items like toasters.

Fereshteh: Yes, they knock very badly.
Maryam: Knock, ‘CHECK ROOM’.
Fereshteh: They shout like this.

Fereshteh’s 2 year old, who was sitting on her knee, interjected – in English: “CHECK ROOM, CHECK ROOM“. Everybody laughed uncomfortably. Fereshteh said, “Because I have small child, I always ask them, ‘Please, knock gently.’”

Maryam explained through the interpreter that this could happen at 10 o’clock at night, and then two staff, either men or women, walk into the room, keeping their shoes on. Sometimes this happens when she is in the shower: “We don’t have any privacy. If the door isn’t opened immediately, Serco staff will open it.

Fereshteh: I don’t have these problems, because whenever they knock, I open the door and say ‘Please give me a second.’ I close the door and change my clothes, and then they come, and they say, ‘Sorry, we are coming to check’. But I heard this from other people, that they are aggressive. But personally, I didn’t have problem with checking the room, because I always open the door and say, ‘One minute.’ When you, when you have delay, they think you are going to hide something.
Maryam: Yes, yes.
Fereshteh: So they don’t wait. But when you open the door very fast, they, they understood you are not cooking, you are not doing anything.

If people try to not let them in, they bring more staff.

Fereshteh: They wait. They wait and wait.

Maryam talked energetically in Farsi. In the midst of it, she said in English, SERCO, SERCO, OPEN THE DOOR.

The translator explained that if the door was locked from the inside, they would ultimately force the door open.

Fereshteh added: “They always tell us, it’s not a prison – but it’s exactly like a prison.

As the job ad quoted at the beginning makes clear, no previous experience of working with people seeking asylum is needed to work in an asylum hotel – the role would ‘suit’ people with experience “from hotels, catering, casino, leisure, bars, facilities, retail, travel industries”. Without casting aspersions on any of those sectors, they hardly seem suitable experience for working with displaced people from a range of cultural backgrounds, who may have experienced trauma, who may be separated from loved ones, and who are living in an intensely stressful protracted limbo.

So it isn’t surprising that hotel residents should face such a toxic combination of arbitrary rules and surveillance on the one hand, and casual carelessness on the other. The hotel environment is one where people with no experience and minimal training, employed often by a chain of subcontractors, become the face of the British state – empowered, with minimal accountability, to regulate and intrude into the lives of displaced people. Publicised stories of abuse have been common – and countless others will have gone unpublicised, amidst the difficulties and fear around raising complaints. The most recent job ads for asylum hotels – while still maintaining that no experience with people seeking asylum is necessary – at least state that “Ideal candidates will come from the support/care industry”. Perhaps recruitment agencies have realised that a little bit of empathy might not go amiss.

Equally, as Eima reminds us, there may already be plenty of well-meaning hotel staff who might even go out their way to help – but, as Eima also comments, ‘they have limitations’. They are not, ultimately, empowered to care – only to surveil and regulate.